After Madrid and the Spanish constitutional court prevented the Catalan government from holding a legal referendum on independence last year, the Catalan elections held on Sunday were always going to be perceived as a plebiscite on this issue. The divided vote in these complex elections is now being interpreted by the “in” camp as support for the territorial status quo – despite them insisting during the campaign that the vote was not a referendum. The “out” camp – precariously uniting the anti-capitalist CUP with a much larger nationalist coalition (Junts pel Sí, or JPS) including the current rightwing president of Catalonia, Artur Mas – is claiming victory for the “sovereignty process”.
The latter case is far stronger. JPS and the CUP won a majority of seats after both standing unambiguously for issuing a unilateral declaration of independence in case of success. On a record general turnout of 77%, they received 48% of votes compared to the 39% for parties opposing independence. However, the Spanish political and media establishment have constructed a supposed majority rejection by including in the “no” figure the 11% that backed Podemos’s coalition (CSQP), which remained agnostic over independence (despite including support for an independent Catalan constitutional process in its manifesto). The pro-independence vote was achieved despite considerable fear-mongering – including the threat of a regional pullout by Spanish banks and an attempt by the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to suggest that independent Catalans would lose Spanish and European citizenship (he was caught out by a journalist who knew the law prohibited both measures).
On Monday, the no-nonsense CUP kept its promise of dropping an automatic independence declaration due to the lack of a majority of clear “yes” votes (rather than seats, as would befit a straightforward referendum). Yet, propelled by a fourth historic street mobilisation, it is expected that the new parliament will take practical steps towards sovereignty, including creating a Catalan foreign office, tax authority and central bank.
For several reasons, however, the sovereignty movement needs to make changes to be successful. First, its support appears to be plateauing – as shown by the similar level of support for independence in the symbolic referendum a year ago. Sunday’s vote revealed strong signs that statehood has yet to win the hearts and minds of working-class voters – in particular, the victory on a high turnout across Barcelona’s “industrial belt” by the Spanish-centralist Ciudadanos, helping it rise to 18% of the overall vote from 8% in 2012. One reason for this is the association – real, but exaggerated by media and politicians – between the sovereignty process and Catalan conservative nationalism. Under Mas, harsh austerity and privatisations have been introduced and 500,000 Catalans remain unemployed.
Despite such a record, moderate-left nationalists – including the large ERC party and leaders of the street movement – have joined Mas in JPS, applying a strategy of “independence first; social justice later”. Because of JPS’s dominance within the independence movement, it is easy to see why many poorer Catalans are holding back. The CUP stood on a separate platform combining social-movement activism and civil disobedience to attain independence, a combination that enabled it to hold mass rallies and more than triple its MPs (to 10). But few broad initiatives have been taken to incorporate social demands into the sovereignty protest (with the exception of the symbolic human chain around La Caixa bank’s headquarters during Catalonia’s national day in 2013). Despite the conservative nationalists feeling their share of the general decline in support for the traditional parties, they have managed to preserve a central role in the sovereignty process, and Mas may continue as Catalan president.
This implies another danger for the movement for sovereignty. Mas’s Convergència has dominated Catalan politics for over three decades through a policy of negotiating greater powers for and less tax transfer from this relatively wealthy territory. This strategy has been blocked since the Spanish constitutional court opposed significant reform of the Catalan statute of autonomy in 2010, but there are signs that Convergència sees brinkmanship over independence as the chance to return to the old path. In a radio interview a top MP-elect for Junts pel Sí explicitly stated that this was the party’s strategy; and Mas has preferred to avoid talk of “independence” in favour of “statehood”, which would allow Catalonia’s inclusion in a Spanish federal framework.
Such evidence, alongside Convergència’s strong links with centralist-minded big business, should encourage progressives to drive a wedge between Mas and the movement. The fact that his political leadership is questioned within Junts pel Sí and particularly by the CUP, which has ruled out electing him as president, means that this is not impossible. Yet it will require a belief that mobilising the people around social as well as national democracy offers a better way forward than allying with dubiously committed converts to the cause – however well-connected.